Finding facilities

With a charter comes the search for school space. Here’s how one Memphis operator is doing it.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Freedom Preparatory Academy's high school is housed in the former Lakeview Elementary School owned by Shelby County Schools.

When Roblin Boxill made the career jump from lawyer to charter school founder seven years ago, she had little knowledge of buildings and maintenance.

Now she can look at ceiling tile and detect asbestos. She can accurately estimate square footage in a potential classroom. And she knows that if a building doesn’t have a fire sprinkler system, it’s not worth her time.

As CEO of Freedom Preparatory Academy, Boxill is like many Memphis charter leaders who deal with the daily challenges of finding facilities and operating new schools in typically aging buildings.

Of the 45 charters authorized by Shelby County Schools, eight are housed in school buildings that have been closed by the district; six lease space and two bought the buildings. The remaining charter schools are housed in commercial buildings.

Next year, thanks to last week’s school board vote, the local district’s charter sector will grow by seven more schools, whose operators must secure their own facilities.

Freedom Prep operates one Memphis charter under the state-run Achievement School District and three under Shelby County Schools, including an elementary school that opened this month in South Memphis.

Finding potential school buildings that are also affordable has been one of Freedom Prep’s biggest challenges as an operator.

When a charter opens in a building owned by Shelby County Schools, the charter pays for rent and regular maintenance. If authorized by the state-run Achievement School District, the charter operator is responsible for utilities and repair, but not rent.

Freedom Prep has been paying $178,060 annually to Shelby County Schools, plus utilities and maintenance, to house its high school at the former Lakeview Elementary School. But it’s now seeking to buy the building and its 15 acres outright for $735,000. The proposed purchase is to be considered Tuesday night by Shelby County’s school board.

The operator’s new elementary school launched inside of the Mt. Pisgah Family Ministry Complex in South Memphis, which also houses Freedom Prep’s offices. For that space, Freedom Prep pays $81,000 per year, plus utilities.

Roblin Boxill, CEO and founder of Freedom Preparatory.
PHOTO: Freedom Preparatory Academy
Roblin Boxill, CEO and founder of Freedom Preparatory.

The school now has about 120 kindergarteners and first-graders, and Boxill expects the budding elementary school to run out of room by next school year, necessitating a move. But she’s not sure where. Buildings that are well suited for a school often come at a high rental price that “basically takes it out of the classroom,” she said.

“(Real estate) is not the business that we’re in,” she said. “Starting a charter school is like starting a startup business, and always from scratch.”

Since charters in commercial spaces are not eligible for money from bonds, other funding for facility improvement comes from conventional loans, investment funds and charter support organizations.

Facilities are just one of the challenges being examined by Shelby County Schools’ new 27-member charter compact committee, of which Boxill is a member. The panel was created earlier this year to look at issues that come up between the district and its growing charter sector. But Boxill said the higher priority for the committee at this point is clarifying academic performance standards following the school board’s decision last spring to revoke four charters over performance issues.

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders could scale back their appeal for tax increases

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

With little public support and mounting criticism, Indianapolis’ largest school district may scale back its nearly $1 billion request for increased funding from taxpayers.

Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that the board would likely consider a proposal next week that would reduce the potential tax increase.

All the board members present voted in favor of asking voters for up to $936 million over eight years at a meeting this past December. But there is a consensus among board members that the original proposal would raise taxes too much, O’Connor said.

“The school system needs more revenue,” O’Connor said. But “we think that’s high.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration is working on coming up with a revised proposal, district chief of staff Ahmed Young confirmed. But officials have not yet finalized how much the amount might be trimmed or what services would be reduced to bring down the price tag.

The revelation comes on the heels of stinging public criticism leveled against the district for asking for such a large tax increase. On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education member and Indianapolis resident Gordon Hendry slammed IPS’ plan to raise taxes during a state board meeting.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” said Hendry, a Democrat.

The original plan, which was approved by the state for inclusion on the May ballot less than a week ago, includes a measure that would raise up to $92 million per year for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and one that would pay for up to $200 million in improvements to school buildings.

If voters signed off on the operating referendum, their property taxes would rise by as much as $0.59 on each $100 of assessed value, while the capital referendum would raise $0.1384 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The board will not alter the referendum that provides money for building improvements, O’Connor said. But it will consider changing how much it seeks for operating expenses, the part responsible for the bulk of the tax increase.

In the months since the original proposal was unveiled in November, few advocates or community organizations have spoken out in support of the referendums. Instead, groups such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce stayed quiet as they discussed the plan internally.

It’s important to the city that the school district is successful, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Chamber. There also is general agreement that the district needs more funding, he said. But the group is waiting to hear more from the administration about how the money will be spent.

“It’s a large amount,” Fisher said. “Is this the right amount?”

Tony Mason from the Indianapolis Urban League raised similar questions.

“IPS definitely requires more support to serve the vast needs of its diverse student population,” Mason wrote in a statement. But the district must make the case in detail for the substantial amount it is requesting.

“IPS needs to be mindful of the already existing and unique tax burdens of those living in the IPS district,” he added.

The district has said the referendums are essential because of declining federal, state, and local revenue. According to the district, the operating referendum would pay for special education services, transportation, and regular maintenance. But the bulk of the money, 72 percent, would help pay regular raises to teachers. The referendum to pay for improvements to school buildings would fund updates such as new lighting and door security.

If it passed, the original operating referendum would increase the district’s annual revenue by nearly $3,000 per student. By comparison, a referendum passed in Washington Township in 2016 raised annual revenue by less than $600 per student.

When the initial plan was announced in December, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that political considerations were not used to determine the amount of the referendums.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” Ferebee said at the time.

But it appears the political challenge of asking voters to dramatically raise their own taxes is more salient for the board.

Board members have privately heard concerns from constituents about the size of the referendums, O’Connor said. He said the district also needs to present more detail to taxpayers about exactly how the money would be spent.

Because $92 million per year is the estimated maximum amount the district could raise if the measure passes, it was always a ceiling, said Young. After the board voted to pursue the initial proposal, the district has continued to do “due diligence.”

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he added.

On Tuesday, school board member Kelly Bentley told Chalkbeat that reducing the amount the district is seeking could help increase the chance that voters approve the referendums and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

“I believe strongly that we are asking no more than what we need,” Bentley said. “But I would rather be successful than not successful in the referenda.”

Correction: February 15, 2018: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement from the Indianapolis Urban League to Tony Mason.

School Finance

IPS bid for more money is ‘the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever,’ state official says

PHOTO: Chalkbeat staff
Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry raised concerns about referendums IPS plans to ask voters to approve in May.

An Indiana education official is calling out Indianapolis Public Schools for how the district has handled a recent proposal to collect almost $1 billion from taxpayers over the next eight years.

Gordon Hendry, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education and an Indianapolis resident, said the district’s plan to ask voters this May to approve two referendums to increase funding has not been transparent. The proposed tax increase is also way too high, he said.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” Hendry, a Democrat, said Wednesday at the board’s February meeting.

So far, few education advocates or community organizations have been vocal in their support for the referendums, which total $936 million. Voters have raised concerns about the amount their taxes would increase and how the money would be spent.

The district has said one referendum would raise up to $92 million per year for eight years to pay for teacher raises, special education services, transportation and regular maintenance. The other asks voters to support $200 million in improvements to school buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security.

Hendry said the district has not provided voters with enough information about what the new money would be used for, instead offering “general statements.” He said he thinks the district should already be able to cover those costs, such as transportation and facilities, with its existing state and local funding.

“Our entire state budget for education is $7 billion each year,” he said.

IPS, like other districts, receives state, local, and federal dollars. Hendry pointed out that under Indiana’s school funding formula, urban districts already receive more money per-student than other districts, although that is supposed to support students who might be more costly to educate than those in suburban or rural districts. Urban schools typically have more students living in poverty, learning English or with disabilities.

The referendums would come with considerable tax increases for those living within IPS boundaries, Hendry said, and would disproportionately affect low-income families.

Hendry didn’t limit his criticisms to IPS. He urged Indiana lawmakers to freeze all school funding referendums and set up a committee this summer to study how to improve the efficiency of district spending, as well as how to address “long-standing” problems with ensuring teachers are adequately paid.

Going forward, Hendry said referendums need more oversight. He proposed that the state board or mayors and city councils should approve them — a measure he said would increase accountability.

More than a third of school districts have asked for tax increases since state lawmakers capped how much local governments could collect in property taxes in 2008. About 60 percent of them have been successful, including six in Marion County.